The European debate on Schengen was so intense and strategic for the common European future that it managed to at times push the story of the financial crisis in Greece, Portugal and Ireland to the inside pages.
At first glance, the debate concerned the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area but the debate was actually much deeper; it raised the question of the future protection of European borders in general.
The immigration pressures that Europe is facing today can only be compared to the stresses of the global financial crisis. Both phenomena threaten the very functioning of major systems of the European Union. It became clear that, as in the case of the financial crisis, the European Union has no developed strategy or response mechanism for the current immigration crisis.
The debate stems from the accession treaties of Bulgaria and Romania that stipulate that both countries should join the Schengen area in 2011.
To do so, they must fulfil a number of technical criteria that apply to all other European countries. It is as simple as that. The governments of both Bulgaria and Romania embraced this as an important task by which they could strengthen their domestic and foreign policy positions. They worked hard, invested millions of euros from their own or EU funds and in fact managed to fulfil these technical criteria.
The MEP charged with shepherding the subject through the European Parliament, Carlos Coelho, a Portuguese parliamentarian from the European People’s Party, clearly stated in his report that the criteria have been met. During the debate in a full siting of the chamber in Strasbourg, all arguments in favour of the accession of the two countries to the Schengen area were put forward diligently by Coelho and at least two dozen other parliamentarians.
The most important arguments were that there are well-established criteria: These have been met and therefore the accession of Bulgaria and Romania should proceed, as in the case of other countries in the past, according to the Treaty and without the need for any political modalities. Opponents to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania numbered less than one fifth of those in the plenary hall and their arguments ranged from the emotional to the political bordering on the abstract.
Concerns were expressed that both countries have high levels of organised crime, corruption and poorly reformed judicial systems. These are things that cannot be measured accurately and belong more in the field of political debate. Even the Roma were invoked, but the fact that Bulgaria has had a visa-free regime with European countries for ten years, which means no current obstacles to the free movement of Roma people anyway, was conveniently not mentioned.
The real problem did not relate to the readiness of Bulgaria and Romania but to something entirely different. This discussion was taking place at a time of unprecedented immigration pressure in two parts of Europe, the first one covering Italy and France as a consequence of the north African revolutions, and the second one being in Greece following the last fifteen restless years in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Turkey.
It is precisely here that European solidarity might start to crumble. In this particular case, the southern countries immediately requested assistance from the Union which the Northern countries nearly refused on the grounds that, under the Schengen treaty, each country is to protect its own borders.
Formally, of course, this is correct. This attitude, however, seems a little short-sighted since the Schengen borders will be penetrated at certain precise spots which even larger countries such as Italy and France will struggle to contain.
It is even more difficult for the eleven million people living in Greece, who for years have been facing a stream of immigrants breaking through the national defences. Official statistics suggest around 250 people enter the Schengen area illegally every day but it is probable the figure is higher.
The problems for Bulgaria would be exactly the same. The common border with Turkey is around 420 kilometres, equally divided between Bulgaria and Greece.
The most important thing now is to use the situation of general discomfort to all concerned and to create an additional mechanism, possibly on the basis of Frontex, in order to provide an enhanced presence in the neuralgic regions of Europe.
One such region is undoubtedly the Bulgarian-Turkish border, where the presence of pan-European security forces must be visible and convincing. In this way, not only can immigration flows be contained but we can also combat illegal drugs and smuggling routes that usually follow illegal immigration routes and deserve an equally uncompromising stance.